How to take GMAT reading comprehension passage notes

I think the biggest mistake I have seen my students make with reading comprehension is that they either take too many notes or none at all.  Taking notes on the RC passage is important, because it will help you immensely when trying to go back to find specific details.  However, taking too many notes is a waste of time.

They key to reading comprehension note taking is noting where things are, not what they are.  There is no point summarizing the passage, because it is right there the whole time. However, if you note the structure of the passage, you have a basic idea of the main point and you know where to go back to for specific details.  Pay attention to key structural words like, however, therefore, in contrast, furthermore. 

Reading comprehension can be boring, especially if you are not interested in the topic.  However, it’s really important to remain engaged.  Try to trick yourself into being interested, at the very least you are still learning something. 

You also don’t need to fully understand every intricate detail of the passage on the first go around.  Let’s take a look at this passage.  (Note: All facts (and some words) in this passage are completely made up.)

Magical theorists have proposed two theories as to why teleportation occasionally causes body disfiguration or “splicing.”  This is the occurrence of body part displacement, upon arrival to a teleportation destination. Proponents of the “concentration theory” believe that splicing occurs as a result of the teleporter’s inability to concentrate properly.   They propose that when teleporting, the subject must apply what is called “syveneial thinking.” This is when the teleporter subliminally holds their desired outcome in their mind, while simultaneously subjugating all other thoughts away from the hyperaladalmous, which the magical part of the brain.  If a subject allows a sumpitious thought to come to the hyperaladamous, that is when splicing occurs.   

Critics of this theory deny that teleportation requires syveneial thinking and instead propose that splicing occurs as a result of supphenial forces outside of the teleporter’s control.  They propose the “supphenial force theory” that posits that outside forces cause splicing, and thus teleportation should only be used in dire circumstances.  There are two camps of thought as to what supphenial forces actually cause splicing.  Camp A believes that tumpits, or magical particles carried on trade winds, can cause a person to splice. If the tumpits coincide with the path of tendonium while the subject is teleporting, the teleporter is likely to splice.  However, Camp B believes that splicing is caused when too many people try to teleport at the same time during a specific jumbra of lunar orbit.  Despite their disagreement on the cause of splicing, both camp A and Camp B believe that no amount of magical training will reduce the occurrence of splicing.

Some reading comprehension passages will look exactly like this to you, a bunch of mumbo jumbo.  In the case of the reading comprehension passages on the GMAT, they will actually have meaning behind them.   In this case, it is literally a bunch of mumbo jumbo.  Nonetheless, you will need to learn how to deal with complicated passages that you don’t understand.  Part of this is understanding what you need to focus on in your first read through.

On a first read through of this passage, you might think to yourself… “what?” and be tempted to read it several time to understand the complex wording and intricate details of the theories.  This is a waste of time.  The most important thing to get a handle on is the structure of the passage.  There is no need to understand every intricate detail.  But, if a question asks you about “syveneial thinking,” you should know where you can go back to, to reread to understand it better.

How much notes to take is a delicate balance.  You want to take enough, so that you know where to go back to if you are asked about something specific, but not so much that you are needlessly summarizing things and wasting time.   The key is to take notes on the structure of the passage: ie where things are not what they are.  How I would take notes in this passage would be:

Screenshot 2015-08-10 18.06.02

These notes allow me to understand the structure of the passage. Even if I don’t fully understand what syvenial thinking or jumbra is, I know where they are, so I can easily find that portion to reread it if a question calls for it.  There is no way that you will get asked about every specific detail from the passage, so there is no need to understand them all right off the bat.

Another important thing to note on the first reading is the author’s tone.  Is he or she really supporting one side over the other? or is he or she just presenting the facts?  In this case, its pretty obvious that the author’s tone is neutral, as s/he makes no indication in favor of any theory or camp. 

You can choose to write down your opinion of the tone or not.  If you think you will remember it, there is no reason to write it down. If you fear you may forget it, though, make a quick note of it.

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Eliza Chute

I was always just an average student, but with the right course prep I was able to score a 770 on my first try. I had to wade through a lot of material to find what was right for me, but luckily for you I've done all the research for you! See more on my GMAT courses page.

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